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I am going to share two breathing exercises that I use to improve my handstand endurance outside of actual handstand practice. I'm not going to pretend you can go from practicing breath control while contemplating the ocean, to holding a handstand on top of your trusty base's hands or with a hula hoop spinning around your foot with these two exercises alone. They will, however, make it much easier to hold the pose/position/trick for long enough to really show off your skills or remain equanimous, depending on your goals. I would also mention that these exercises can help you improve performance in many endurance type sports. Getting better at breath control is a process that requires practice and time. Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. It’s ok to sigh a bit and then get ready to work.
I practice breath control in a setting outside of handstand practice. That is what helped me get from huffing and puffing to holding my handstand for one minute without turning beet red, and in a surprisingly timely fashion at that. Here are the steps for practicing breath control outside of handstand practice:
Warning: I am not a health professional and advise you to consult your doctor before practicing these exercises.
Exercise 1 - Stealth Breathing
GOAL: To BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE ONLY, making NO NOISE and NO MOVEMENT visible to an outsider. This will require slow controlled breathing. You do not want to breath out through your mouth as this releases too much CO2 too quickly and prevents you from optimizing oxygen saturation.
BENEFITS: The result of doing this exercise successfully and consistency will be to reset your tolerance for CO2 which will allow your CO2 levels to rise higher in your blood without causing as much discomfort, which in turn prompts you to gasp for air. You will be able to hold an uncomfortable inverted position for longer despite the restricted air volume available to your lungs and you will be able to recover faster from this effort.
PREPARATION: Sit in a comfortable position. You can also stand if you prefer. The idea is to be comfortable, you do not need to be in lotus position by any means. You do, however, need to sit up, spine long, top of head floating up the sky. If this is difficult then use some pillows or a chair to help maintain the position.Now place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.
1. Start by breathing in and out, as you normally do, but only through your nose, for a count of 10.
2. Then breathe silently and invisibly (stealth breathing) for a count of 5.
3. Repeat the cycle 5 times.
If you have to gasp for air when you finish a round of Stealth Breathing, then you are pushing yourself too hard. You want to be able to keep control of your breath for the entire exercise. If this is the case then scale back and breathe normally through your nose for 10 counts, then Stealth Breathing for 3 counts, or whatever you can maintain without gasping when you return to normal breathing.
I will also mention that you don’t want to push yourself and get lightheaded. Breathing is obviously essential to life and you need to take responsibility for your well-being. Start slowly and build up. We are building our tolerance to CO2 not trying to do ourselves harm. When you can comfortably do 5 rounds of 10 counts off, 5 counts on, then you can start to increase your rounds and/or your counts of stealth breathing.
My goal is to be able to breathe like this for 5 minutes, but it not as easy as it sounds. If you feel lightheaded then please stop! Rest and then start again on a smaller scale. I usually find a general feeling of panic starting to spread through me rather early on and a strong desire to stop this exercise after a few rounds. Pace yourself.
Exercise 2 -Step challenge
GOAL: To take as many steps as you can while holding your breath and then be able to begin breathing again, slowly and calmly, with no gasping for air or accelerated breathing.
BENEFITS: This exercise resets your CO2 tolerance which will allow you to deal with restricted air volume and maintain composure. Walking requires more effort than sitting and so you will feel the urge to breathe sooner than if you were sitting still. Learning about your body's cues.
PREPARATION: Get your journal and a pen ready. Remember that your mouth remains closed throughout this ENTIRE exercise. Find a space the is sufficiently large to either walk in a large circle, or head outside and walk in a straight line. You may feel silly walking through the park holding your nose; consider this when choosing your spot.
1. Breath in and out normally through your nose.
2. Next, exhale and then hold your nose closed with your fingers so that no air sneaks in.
3. Start walking at any pace you choose, but try to keep it your natural stride so that everyday you will fall back into this pace every time you practice.
4. Count how many steps you can take before you feel your body contract because it wants air.
5. Now release your nose and gently breathe in through your nose.
6. Write down the number of steps in your journal.
7. Rest for 1 minute. Repeat 3-5 times.
ONLY take as many steps as you can so that you can release your nose and breathe in slowly and calmly through your nose. If you need to suck in air rapidly when you release your nose and then take a few more quick breaths, this means you held your breath for too long! Learn to understand your body's cues. We are trying to get our bodies to accept higher levels of CO2 and rapid breathing will expel the CO2 we have built up by holding our breaths and defeat the purpose.
With practice, you will be able to take more steps before your body tenses due to the breathing reflex. You should aim for 80 steps, but don't be surprised, depending on your fitness level and age, if you start somewhere between 15 and 25 steps. Also, walking faster might make your progress look better on paper, but if you are going to take the time to do this exercise, why cheat yourself out of the full benefits.
The same warning applies as for exercise 1: if you feel lightheaded then you are pushing yourself too far, too fast. Scale it back! Prefer to be the tortoise than the hare collapsed in a heap in the middle of the park with a crowd of onlookers milling around.
Again, as you read this you may be thinking, this sounds like the easiest thing; I could do that all day! If you are a trained freediver then yes, you are now laughing at the rest of us. Otherwise, I invite you to try these exercises and decide for yourself. I was surprised how uncomfortable I got and how much I wished I was doing anything else at that moment. Look at it like HIIT training; it is going take some motivation and you are probably going to be looking at your watch wondering when the heck it is going to be over. But you can't beat the results.
Becoming proficient at controlling your breathing will be very useful when you are stuck in that uncomfortable strenuous upside down handstand. First, you will be able to tolerate the higher levels of CO2 and continue to breathe slowly and calmly. Second, You will be familiar with how to breathe with minimal changes to your best alignment that you have been working so hard to get into and to maintain.
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.